What are USCG and SOLAS/COLREG regulations for navigation lighting?

Proper lighting of your watercraft and understanding night navigation rules are both critically important for safe navigation in the dark. Regulations vary according the vessel size and means of propulsion, whether under power, sail or oars.

The classification "vessels under oars" includes paddled watercraft.

We've compiled links to federal and state regulatory agencies. Ultimately, it′s the paddler′s responsibility to read and understand navigation rules. Direct contact with officials rather than reliance on interpretations of regulations is recommended.

We have developed a set of recommendations for paddlers, linked at the bottom of this FAQ.

International conventions for Safety of Life At Sea (SOLAS) and COLREG 72 apply to transit in international waters. Our recommendations and issues cited are equally applicable to paddlers considering COLREG 72 rules.

Misinformation is widespread, notably with respect to lawfully required lighting of a kayak or canoe; maneuvering safely at night; reducing risk upon an unintended capsize; and following long-established practices when navigating a kayak, SUP, SOT, canoe or other "vessel under oars" at night.

Misperceptions and Misleading Claims

One widespread misperception is that kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, canoes and oared or rowed boats (e.g. "vessel under oars") are optimally suited to be outfitted according to navigation rules applicable to a powerboat or sailboat.

A number of manufacturers advertise a "USCG Certified kayak light" having obtained a certification exclusively to satisfy minimum visibility requirements of a "sternlight" as defined by USCG for a powerboat or sailboat, with no further consideration of lighting and safety issues specifically applicable to a paddled or rowed watercraft. Other manufacturers advertise a "USCG Certified kayak light" having actually obtained USCG Certification for a light to be mounted on a personal flotation device (PFD).

Note that the "electric torch" and "lighted lantern" of Navigation Rule 25 are not the "sternlight" as defined by USCG; nor are they the "all-round" (e.g. "all-around") light as defined by USCG; nor are they appropriate for mounting on a PFD.

In fact, the "electric torch" and "lighted lantern" of Rule 25 can not be "USCG Certified" because there is no applicable Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) defining specifications for these specific types of navigation lights. While a paddler or rower may choose to mount lights appropriate for a sailboat, USCG and COLREG 72 provides an opportunity to consider a "vessel under oars" more carefully.

Paddlers and rowers must consider the consequences of their choices.

Consequences of a poor choice may include: displaying a light that may not be visible across the arc of the horizon; impeding the remounting of a kayak after an unintended capsize; compromising safety by using an unreliable mount; mounting colored lights that create confusion among others on the watersheet; or mounting a high-powered light within close proximity to the paddler, compromising the night vision of the paddler and possibly others. These risks to a paddler or rower are not thoroughly considered in navigation rules but should be a consideration when determining how to appropriately outfit a watercraft.

Our Recommendations

We′ve put together a few sound Recommendations for outfitting a kayak, SOT, SUP or canoe.

The recommendations page linked above includes a Note Regarding USCG Certification and USCG Approval, and a Caution regarding Interpretations of USCG Navigation Rules.

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